How Arsenal share an approach with the Royal Shakespeare Company

These days watching a Royal Shakespeare production is a bit like watching Arsenal at Barnet. The players are there, the skills are there, but the auditorium isn’t.

If you are not devoted to Shakespeare, or you don’t live in England, you’ll not know that about three years ago the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford was knocked down, and they started to build a new one. (It was a rubbish theatre, built at a time when no one was building theatres and they got it horribly wrong, so the rebuild is necessary – but it is taking longer than building the Ems, because the new theatre is on the same site as the old one).

So these days we watch the RSC in the acoustically challenging Courtyard Theatre nearby. Same players but there’s something wrong with the pitch.

Now don’t give up with me on this (even if the thought of watching a play written in 1601 is enough to make you pick up a copy of News of the World for light relief), for there is a link between Arsenal and the RSC beyond the change of stadia.

The programme for “As you like it” (which I saw yesterday) contains a long article on the rehearsal schedule at the RSC. Being (in the eyes of millions) the greatest theatrical company in the universe, the RSC not only takes the very best players but also works on rehearsing a play for longer than most: six months is not uncommon.

I think that in the last six months we have been watching a rehearsal season at Arsenal which is working in a similar way.

Indeed I believe this pre-season has been the culmination of an experimentation in format that started after the 3-0 defeat to Manchester Arab last year.

Now I say all this having not seen most of the pre-season games: in fact I only saw the first (Barnet) and the last (last night) and the latter was watched on my laptop. This incidentally made me realise I need a better laptop – especially now Arsenal TV seems no longer to exist. (Did they scrap it while I was on holiday?)

Last night we saw the experiment take on the shape of Ramsey and Cesc play in the same line up while Van Persie appeared to be playing on his own up front with Bendtner out on the wing.

This does not mean that we are going to see this in the league games. Rather it was the equivalent of Rosalind and Celia (in As You Like It) each holding the end of a piece of bamboo as they circle each other during their long dialogues in As Your Like It. You’re not going to do it in production, but in rehearsal it sure as anything makes the actors feel the relationship between each other and understand what the other is up to.

What brings all this together is the number of times in the pre-season players have played out of position. In fact in the first half of the Barnet game we had virtually everyone out of position at one stage.

But in the context it begins to become clear. Players learn more about themselves and their colleagues, players find out if they can play out of position, and the manager sees alternatives that were never before apparent. Plans B, C and D unfold before your eyes.

All this means that the club will be much more ready to overcome both the different tactics being used against us and the injuries we may expect (and which these days seem to hit us on the industrial scale).

Such explorations can make matches a bit unnerving pre-season, and leads to the continuation of fans demands for more ready-made transfers. But to make such a demand is to miss the main point. A star coming in, already established in a set position, doesn’t always take kindly to being told to experiment playing somewhere else. Some will willingly take it on (I’m fairly sure Arshavin hasn’t played in some of the positions he’s had at Arsenal, while in Russia), but many blow hot and cold.

Thus the drive, in my eyes (and again to admit, I have missed most of the pre-season) has been towards multi-flexibility. That doesn’t mean that against Everton next week we will see a fairly familiar line up. What it does mean is that if things are not going our way in that game, we will have the chance to make 3 changes from the bench, and totally transform our tactics.

Of course most commentators on blogs and in the media disagree, and will always stay with the utterly simple and most common-sense view of the game. As one fan, writing in the Observer today, says, “It feels like Groundhog Day for us Gooners, as le Gaffer sticks faithfully to his strategy (perhaps a necessity not a choice?) of putting all his oeufs in his Young Guns basket.”

To me however it feels and looks like an experiment as remarkable as bringing in Henry and Pires, giving each of them a year to warm up, and then saying, “ok, now go and do your double act”. It is one of those things that you just can’t quite remember when it started happening. Not in the first year of Pires in the club, for sure, but soon into his second year we all realised quite what the Lord Wenger had been up to.

Same sort of thing here. And when it works all the doubters will forget that they ever said a word against the master plan. But what we are getting at the moment is something far more complex than has ever been seen before on a footballing stage.

(c) Tony Attwood 2009.

9 Replies to “How Arsenal share an approach with the Royal Shakespeare Company”

  1. Very much a public rehearsal these games. You can learn some stuff, confirm other stuff and marvel and wonder at what the great man might see that we don’t. I know he looked a bit grumpy on occasions last night which suggests not all was going as he’d planned.
    He does believe in a kind of total football I think, with all players comfortable on the ball and understanding how different positions work and interact, but the needs of the premiership to an extent have straight-jacketed him Other teams, with the complicity of the English football world, think that kicking pretty players works – sometimes (Reyes) it does.
    I for one am looking forward to the fruition of his great plan and just hope the players can deliver it. Efficiency and beauty, victory through harmony.

  2. So you are you saying that all the out of position play towards the end of last season was all just an experiment. That having bendtner, walcott and eboue playing on the wing will ultimately make us a stronger team and doesn’t represent either a permanent tactical change or a deficiency in the squad?

    To be honest I’m not entirely convinced but it’s a possibility and will be interesting to see happen if this is the case.

  3. I absolutely agree with you Tony, unless someone think that Senderos is midfielder and Wenger lost his mind and he have to be fired and replaced with some of us, fans, who see things clearly. So why to overpay Wenger when its so obvious, in fact, I will apply for a job, and I will even agree to be paid 2000 pounds (month, not week).
    So, or football is a bit more complicated than it look on computer games and from comfortable home chair, or whole footballing world get insane overpaying mangers.

    They may send us in Championship a week before season even started, and they may have right. But there is one fantastic thing and I have to share it with you. For our Bosnian Arsenal Supporters Club I have task to write article about start of new season, and I start with analyzing our squad, positions, strength… and marvelous thing is, that every time I write about some position, I forget some players. And not some crap players, but excellent ones. No I don’t have Alzheimer, I am only 35, than our squad is filled with bunch of extraordinary players, and Wenger have plenty of options. Maybe even more than any manager in PL. Others may have stars, but in general we are the ones who have equal strength on each position, we have reserves who are enough strong to beat opponent. Squad is such “wide” that some players couldnt even be tested during preseason. And don’t forget…there are Rosicky and Nasri who will be there in month or so.

  4. Spot on, Tony. Arsene even says, although perhaps not as frequently as some of us would like so as to make it well understood, that he WANTS flexibility in a player. He wants the CB who can, on occasion, slip into a DM role if needed due to injuries or if tactics require. He wants an attacking midfielder who can slide out to the wing. Playing the preseason matches and using different formations, different combos and what might often seem a hodge-podge to the regular starting XI, is exactly what the preseason is for.

    At the midpoint of last season we saw a squad that was struggling, was low on self confidence and had suffered some injuries to key players. In comes Arshavin. He’s most comfortable in the middle, either as an attacking midfielder or as a second striker. Arsene pulls him aside and says “Son, I need you out on the wing. The LEFT wing.” Shava, being a professional, dutifully trots out to the left wing and stuns everyone (including himself) in the Prem with his performances. As the season wore on and we were forced to continue fielding a mix-n-match squad at times (Cesc was out, Ade was out, Theo was out, Clichy got hurt, Gallas got hurt), needs must that some players were simply going to have to step into positions they were not either intimately familiar with or were not at their preferred position. But something strange happened around the end of February…it all started to make sense to the players. Yes, we were still fielding an odd squad, but the players themselves understood what the demands were, WHY they were being asked to do such, and went about putting together a 21 match unbeaten streak.

    I guess my point here, in complete agreement with you, Tony, is that we as fans often only see what’s on the pitch. It might not always be pretty or make sense. But the most important thing is that the players get it. And they take it on 100% and get the job done. In taking this preseason to experiment a bit with formations and player positions, the squad must surely understand the method behind the madness (well, madness to some fans, anyway). The deeper methodology of experimentation will help us as the season goes on and the players will have at least some modicum of experience with the inevitable adjustments to draw upon when needed.

  5. @ Armin Medic, I can call you a collegue because I write almost everything on the site of the Arsenal Benelux Supporters club. So normally it is a rather positive site in the Arsenal world. 😉
    @ Tony : I also think that the sometimes strange positions for some players is a way of learning in matches how it is to play there. The result yesterday wasn’t good but to stay in the Shakespeare thing: After a bad final rehearsel, a great opening show will folow.
    Maybe the result yesterday was the best thing that could have happened because when you win almost everything in the preseason, you sometimes get the feeling amongs some players they just have to step on the pitch to get 3 points and now they will know again that it will be hard work and 200 % of winning attitude in the season.

    BTW : was I the only one to notice that the ball bubbled around the pitch as iff it was being used for rugby just a few hours before kickoff ?

  6. tony, i dont think its your laptop. ive watched 4 preseason matches on atv-online and last nights match was the worst quality of all. it almost looked like a re-streamed feed from some french tv channel.

    as for the 6-month rehearsal, i totally agree. after the setback at birmingham, when our season fell apart, it took arsene the few months until he signed arshavin to re-group and settle the team down. the 07/08 season was the first completion of his ideal squad, and had things been slightly different, we would have won the league, hleb and flamini….etc etc. but the point remains, our pre-season has been going on a lot longer than our opponents’.

  7. I am pretty sure that it will all come together sooner rather than later. We saw it work to a ‘T’ against Rengers. At the moment, some players click better than others. What is most ideal is for several combinations of players to click. They just need to see the other player in a poition, study how they move differently to others so as to know what type of pass to play; not just sending the same pass to everyone. I have no doubt that it will bear fruit.

  8. Good points Tony, I had not really thought about things from that perspective. But it’s obvious now that you say it that Arsene has been experimenting to try to get that famous ‘balance’ between creativity and defence. It does not seem to be based on formations but more about mobility when in possession of the ball and closing down the opposition when they have the ball.

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